Duck boat operator sued for $100 million after 17 die in tragic accident
By Amanda Watts and Ralph Ellis, CNN
BRANSON, Mo. (CNN) -- A wrongful death lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages has been filed against the operator of a duck boat that sank on a lake near Branson, Missouri, killing 17 passengers.
When the Ride the Ducks Branson amphibious vessel started sinking July 19, the canopy entrapped the passengers and dragged them to the bottom of the lake, lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi said Monday at a news conference.
The passengers might have survived if the Branson operators had not ignored a 2002 National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that all duck boat canopies should be removed, he said.
"They made a conscious, intentional decision not to remove the canopies and the only reason I can surmise is money and profit," he said.
The Ride the Ducks Branson amphibious vessel had 31 people on board when it left the shore July 19 on Table Rock Lake as a severe thunderstorm whipped up intense winds and waves. The boat capsized and sank, killing 17 people, aged 1 to 76, including nine members of the Coleman family.
The lawsuit was filed Sunday in US District Court for the Western District of Missouri for the administrators of the estates of two family members who died -- Ervin Coleman, 76, and Maxwell Ly, 2. Other family members are expected to join the suit, Mongeluzzi said.
The lawsuit alleges that Ripley Entertainment, Ride the Ducks International, Ride the Ducks Branson, Herschend Family Entertainment and Amphibious Vehicle Manufacturing knew prior to the catastrophe that the Duck Boat industry was "entirely unfit to be used for any purpose and had previously been responsible for dozens of deaths."
CNN is reaching out to the defendants for comment.
Ripley Entertainment International purchased the Branson duck boat operation from Herschend last December, the law firm says.
13 people died in 1999 incident
Mongeluzzi, a member of a Philadelphia-based firm that has represented other victims of duck boat accidents, said there are 100-200 duck boats in the United States and that 42 people have died on land and water in accidents since 1999.
He said it's unlikely duck boat operators in Branson were surprised by stormy weather July 19 because a severe thunderstorm warning was issued around 6:30 p.m. local time.
Also, he said, the amphibious vehicle usually did a "land portion" of the trip first, but "it's clear they knew severe weather was coming and they tried to beat the storm by going on the water portion first."
The 2002 NTSB report was issued after the 1999 Miss Majestic duck boat accident in Hot Springs, Arkansas, that left 13 people dead.
Duck boats' safety record, agency's fears don't jibe
The recommendation on removing canopies didn't have the force of law and the industry did not react, Mongeluzzi said.
"This tragedy was the predictable and predicted result of decades of unacceptable, greed-driven, and willful ignorance of safety by the Duck Boat industry in the face of specific and repeated warnings that their Duck Boats are death traps for passengers and pose grave danger to the public on water and on land," the lawsuit alleges.
Life jackets not required to be worn
None of the Branson victims who died were wearing life jackets when they were found, a source with knowledge of the investigation told CNN. The vessel contained life jackets, but passengers weren't required to wear them, according to Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader. Survivors have said the captain mentioned the life jackets but said they wouldn't need them.
The NTSB is investigating the cause of the sinking. State investigators are also examining why the vessel changed the route it took that day, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said.
Mongeluzzi said his clients wanted the lawsuit filed for two reasons.
"They want to know what happened. Why did their loved ones die?" he said. "And more importantly, they want to know that no one ever dies again inside a death trap duck boat. They want this lawsuit to ban duck boats."
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